The Delfin II arrived at the Freeport pier this afternoon, its hold containing about 4,000 pounds of Snapper.
The crew had been at sea for five days, fishing the waters 80 miles off the Texas coast.
I’m with Roberto San Miguel, who for years has made the three hour run between the Gulf and Austin to supply some of the city’s most popular chefs with Snapper, shrimp and Grouper. His skills have been documented by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Rachel Ray. I’ve seen otherwise well adjusted young parents at the Austin Farmers’ Market fight for the bags of shrimp he hauls to town several times a week from this dock.
With us is Captain Mark Friudenberg, who watches his crew unload the largest, most beautiful fish I have ever seen. The crew works like an efficient machine, carting large containers of ice on an aging, wooden dock that buckles underneath our feet. Captain Mark owns a seafood market one block away that smells of fresh ice and crawfish seasoning. It is clean, bordering on immaculate.
I try to pretend that the August sun here isn’t oppressive, that it doesn’t feel like hot tar sticking to my skin.
Roberto and Captain Mark are concerned that there isn’t a distinction being made by big media between Texas seafood, which I see clean and robust with my own eyes, and the drama surrounding the oil spill hundreds of miles to the East.
That perception is having an affect on their business, which is frustrating considering the quality of the seafood they pull out of the Gulf. The images of the spill are at the forefront of the minds of tourists, and its hard to communicate through that message. It’s hard for someone who doesn’t work on these boats to understand how far the contamination if from Texas.
For a day, these men are my heros, and I look forward to telling their story more in-depth, and with some inspiration, the story of hundreds of people just like them, making a living on our coasts, nurturing the waters and its economies.
I learned to cook from my parents. Both are wonderful in the kitchen, typically cooking dishes that begin with the sautéing of the holy trinity: garlic, olive oil, and onion. My mom can make green peppers stuffed with extravagant Spanish rice, fist-sized meatballs, and chicken and dumplings anointed by higher powers. Memories of my father put him beside a charcoal grill, turning steaks that spent entire hours soaking in garlic oil and sea salt.
To bring my own element to their lessons, I have found that it helps to consume at least one and a half bottles of red wine to better dull any sense of impending culinary doom. Doing so creates an environment where errors in measurement, fires, flare-ups, second-degree burns, Salmonella, and sliced, scalded, or amputated digits are not only dismissed, but celebrated flagrantly.
Fortunately, I married a woman who shares equal abandon for rules – and sobriety — in the kitchen.
For that reason, this Valentine’s Day we decided to try our hand at a higher order of cooking. We consulted a book that is held in high regard by a friend of ours who lived for some length in Italy.
Giuliano Bugialli’s The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, is considered by some, more or less, as the gold standard of fine Italian cooking. Bugialli takes the unique approach of stressing an OCD-like obsession with authentic Italian ingredients, measurement, and preparation. For one dish, he dryly remarks that unless you have imported, canned Italian tomatoes, the dish should not be attempted. Substituting, say, organic whole tomatoes would simply undermine the historical context of the dish.
As an exercise in culinary discipline, we attempted three Bugialli dishes: Pollo in porchetta (delightfully described by Bugialli as “a chicken made in the manner of suckling pig”), Spaghetti coachmen’s style, and a tomato and mozzarella salad blended with fresh basil, sea salt and black pepper.
My grandmother, who for years worked as a waitress at the Jolly Roger restaurant in Urbana, Illinois, prided herself on the relationships she made with her customers. The J.R. was a popular Italian eatery nestled in downtown Urbana that had a pipe-smoking organ player; shadowy, candlelit booths; and was frequented by virtually everyone who was anyone in these twin cities.
Jean Pellum treated her customers like family and watched at least two generations of children grow up; each milestone in their life celebrated at the J.R.
My grandmother died in 1993, and the J.R. was never the same. In the mid 1990s, the restaurant began a slow, downward spiral and closed in 2007, twelve years after I last stepped foot inside.
For years, I’ve been searching for an Italian restaurant that fills the void of the J.R. While nothing will ever come completely close, Reale’s, located in North Austin, comes as close as anything ever will.
Friends introduced us to Reale’s not long after we moved to the neighborhood. I found it dark and cozy, and no matter what night of the week you visit the wait staff is the same. This is a family owned restaurant with career staff. Every server knows the wine list by heart and can describe dishes in extensive detail.
The dress code exists on a spectrum that ranges from shorts and sandals to tuxedos. Each customer is equally welcomed to mounds of delicately seasoned marinara, homemade meatballs, and pizza that is among the best I’ve tasted. While the chicken Parmesan is especially seductive, the cannoli is downright sultry.
It’s common during your visit to have an older, handsome man in slacks and a jacket come by your table, pat you on the shoulder and ask you how your meal is. It may be difficult to tell him it’s not the best Italian food you’ve ever had.